Symbols, motifs and metaphors

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Many plays employ symbols, motifs and metaphors to communicate with an audience. Often symbols, motifs and metaphors are used because they contain a poetical power, a quality that is fuller or even inexpressible in other ways.

  • Sometimes the play’s set can possess a symbolic value beyond just providing an arena for the play’s action (for example, the set of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – a “transparent” house structure surrounded by towering, threatening shapes – the personal world surrounded by the impersonal).
  • Sometimes an element within the set or a particular prop can be important for its symbolic properties (the what-not with its collection of glass animals in Tennessee Williams, A Glass Menagerie, which is symbolic of some of the play’s “fragile” characters).
  • Sometimes the metaphor is in the language of the play, expressed through a character’s dialogue. For example, to use another much-studied play, Eugene Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the text refers to a fog on the harbour. This motif, which is both a literal and metaphorical reference, creates an claustrophobic atmosphere in the play and helps communicate to the audience a feel for “the fog of drug addiction”, which is one theme of the play.
  • Another example or a motif (a recurring symbol or language reference within the script) can be found in Death of a Salesman in the form a repeated and evocative flute melody.

It is important to know that a symbol, motif or metaphor does not have to be obvious to be effective. Subtle symbolism can be very successful at rousing and maintaining audience engagement with the play. Therefore, the writer’s task is not to force it. If your play has a poetical dimension, its poetical qualities should emerge naturally and intrinsically from the piece.

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